(to the sound of Greek bagpipes)

Today, the Greek Government
executed by firing squad
1000 pensioners, along
with 2000 workers, as part
of a package of financial
reforms, to reassure
the markets and permit
the Troika to release one
more tranche of the bail-out.

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Funk Rap

To create, so I read, a sense of futility
in uncooperative detainees,
the damned souls of Gitmo are played
non-stop Britney Spears.

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In the Planetary Ballet

Tycho Brahe’s model of the universe
had all the planets (except earth)
revolving round the sun, while the sun,
with its planets in tow, revolved
around earth. So he kept the Jesuites
happy, and preserved his name
as a scientist. But this was no time-server,

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Not Rule Britannia

Review of Robert Crawford & Mike Imlah, eds,
The New Penguin Book of Scottish Verse (2000)

We are so used to the phenomenon of English being an international language, or most people’s first choice of a second language, that we don’t reflect on how extraordinary it is. I’m not talking of the linguistic complacency that follows from finding English-speakers more or less everywhere these days. Nor of the fact that any moderately interesting book in English will find readers (and reviewers) not only in America and Australia but in Scandinavia and France and Chile – something that doesn’t happen, for example, for writers in Portuguese or Spanish, or Dutch. No, the most extraordinary aspect of world English is the number of movements of political and cultural resistance that have had to express their nationalism in English.

It’s often said to have begun in America. But that revolution was an offshoot of the enlightenment. It was in Haiti and Latin­America that the cultural-nationalist predicament was most fully experienced in the New World – Toussaint L’Ouverture rebelling in French and Simon Bolivar in Spanish. Almost simultaneously, Irish and Indian nationalists began stealing the emperor’s clothes. Since then, in the British Caribbean, and Malaysia and Africa, English has been in country after country the language of cultural resistance and national independence. Local languages have always had a part in this, fighting back hard with their own agenda, and infiltrating the local versions of English to form krios of their own. Yet English has been made to appear modernising, unifying and ‘national’, while the local languages have seemed backward-looking and divisive. In Zambia, for example, with its seven recognised local languages and its seventy-nine so-called ‘tribes’, the status of English is secure. More precisely, it is after English is secure that the local languages can be cultivated.

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Working with Leroy

I first met Leroy Vail when I joined the University of Malawi in August 1969. I met him as a member of a history department that, under Bridglal Pachai’s apparently innocuous leadership, was subversively the intellectual heart of the university. Robin Palmer (The Roots of Rural Poverty, 1977) was one colleague. Martin Chanock (Law, Custom and Social Order, 1985) was another. The history seminars of those days featured Matthew Schoffeleers (River of Blood, 1992) and Ian and Jane Linden (whose Catholics, Peasants & Chewa Resistance, 1974) has never received the recognition it deserves. And, of course, myself, there in Malawi to teach English literature, but drawn to history as the discipline with a brain. Student participants at these seminars included the poets Jack Mapanje and Lupenga Mphande, archaeologist Gadi Mgomezulu and historians Kings Phiri, Owen Kalinga, and Elias Mandala (Work & Control in a Peasant Economy, 1990).

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